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Nurturing a Culture for Continuous Learning

by Ben Linders on Jul 24, 2014 |

Continuous learning supports agile adoption in enterprises. A culture change can be needed to enable and support continuous learning. There are several things that managers and agile coaches can do to establish and nurture a continuous learning culture.

In the Dr.Dobb's article where is the learning in agile, Pollyanna Pixton explains why continuous learning is important for agile teams:

Without a culture of learning, processes take over that allow us to wriggle out of responsibility — a mindset encapsulated in the phrase: "I didn't fail. The Agile methods don't work." I have heard variations of this many times. However, if a specific process doesn't work, the Agile team must learn what needs to be changed to succeed and possess the collective ownership to make the change.

Managers and agile coaches should work on the organizational culture and conditions for teams to be able to learn, as Pollyanna states:

With self-organizing teams, agilistas sometimes feel leaders are not needed. I have learned this is not the case. We need leaders to help create a culture of learning, trust, and ownership. Agile relies on learning from failures, taking risks to delight customers, and understanding the value of the software to the customers and to the business.

Consultants do have a useful purpose. They help teams jumpstart their exposure to Agile methods. But coaches should also help teams become self-sufficient by teaching them how to learn and adapt. 

Daniel Mezick describes four agile coaching values and eight related and supporting principles in his blog post agile coaching values explained. One of the coaching values mentioned is “Championing Learning over avoiding risk”:

Continuous learning is destabilizing to existing culture. Questioning long-help assumptions can be risky in an organization that values stability over learning. Agile coaches value the building of a capacity of continuous learning in the orgs they serve. This includes encouraging the client to identify, expect and manage the many risks of genuine organizational learning.

It’s important to create a culture of continuous learning as Paul Boston explains in his blog post are you a leader who nurtures performance excellence:

Having a culture where formal and informal learning is encouraged greatly enhances employee engagement and performance. For a leader within human performance organization it then becomes important to nurture excellence within the teams, and have learning turned into performance results.

In the blog post key elements of a learning culture Stephen Gill provides his definition of a learning culture:

A “learning culture” is a community of workers continuously and collectively seeking performance improvement through new knowledge, new skills, and new applications of knowledge and skills to achieve the goals of the organization. A learning culture is a culture of inquiry; an environment in which employees feel safe asking tough questions about the purpose and quality of what they are doing for customers, themselves, and other stakeholders.

Stephen provides a list of social elements that are critical to a learning culture:

  1. Building trust
  2. Encouraging risk-taking
  3. Communicating
  4. Engaging stakeholders
  5. Allowing for feedback and reflection
  6. Supporting social learning

The InfoQ article creating a culture of learning and innovation by Jeff Plummer provides a case study of a bottom-up initiative for training and education in an engineering organization:

The idea was simple. We would ask engineers to teach others the concepts that they themselves find interesting. Getting business directors to sign off on thousands of dollars on professional training, while taking people away from the projects that earn the business money, is always a difficult task (…).  But getting a fellow engineer, whose background is in Machine Learning, to give a "brown bag" lunch meeting on the topic of similarity classifiers is a much smaller hurdle. A company's very own people already have a great deal of knowledge; they just need to share it.

Two formats were used to provide training: brown bag lunch sessions and deep dives. Jeff describes how training champions helped to make continuous learning part of the organizational culture:

The champions were the people who bought into the concept completely and were willing to throw together a brown bag lunch seminar at the last minute just to keep the momentum moving. The champions were also the people who were out encouraging their peers to give talks and pushing others to keep the training initiative moving forward. Those few people are the people who enabled a cultural change to happen.

Allison Pollard wrote a summary of an open space session about creating a learning organization. She explains why learning is important when organizations want to adopt agile:

The more capable an organization is of learning, the less likely it is to become extinct.  Given the increasing rate of change in business, learning is a necessity to stay ahead of the competition.

She provides several ideas on how to create safety for a learning organization:

  • Introduce “options” – brainstorm multiple ideas about what to do next.  Keeping the status quo is one option.
  • Talk about “experiments” – emphasize that decisions are not permanent.  We learn by trying something for a period of time and evaluating it.
  • Create study groups – form communities of practice or book clubs to emphasize learning together.
  • Celebrate failure – making mistakes is a part of learning, and recognizing mistakes is important.
  • Collect data – observe and analyze your current state.  It is important to understand what is going on in order to determine what to change or improve.
  • Show visible support for discovery – host hackathons, introduce Google’s 20% time or FedEx Days to promote innovative thinking.

How do you establish and nurture a culture for continuous learning?

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